CLODIA’S NECKLACE of glass cylinder beads, twenty-four karat goldplate, opals, and amethyst; right angle weave, peyote stitch, 2007. Photograph by Larry Sanders.
Maggie Meister

Antiquity Amore


It was in Naples splendid Museo Archeologico Nazionale that she had her epiphany about mixing beadwork with her passion for antiquities.



In 1998 the United States Navy transferred Maggie Meister’s husband from Washington State to Naples, Italy. Having never been to Italy, Meister immersed herself in books such as the popular memoir Under the Tuscan Sun, by American writer-turned-Tuscan-farmhouse-remodeler Frances Mayes. Buoyed by a vision of gracious days in sun-dappled olive groves and tranquil Tuscan towns, Meister was shocked when she and her family arrived in Naples, a pulsing, noisy, gritty metropolis plagued by crime and garbage strikes. “I cried for days,” Meister says. “All I could think of was Frances Mayes and Tuscany. I was so disappointed. I asked my husband, ‘Who put the Bronx in San Diego?’”

BACCHUS EARRINGS of glass cylinder beads with twenty-four karat goldplate, 3-4 millimeter garnets, goldfilled ear wires, Nymo; beading thread; right angle weave and peyote stitch, and a variation of Nepal stitch, 2007. Photograph by Larry Sanders.

Finally, after six weeks of moping, Meister signed up for a bus tour of the city. “Aldo, the tour guide, who has since become a great friend, is a Neapolitan and a historian and he loves his city,” Meister states. “I began to see it, and its great history, through his eyes. And at one point that afternoon the bus turned a corner and I saw the Bay of Naples and the magnificent castle, and I remember saying out loud, ‘This isn’t ugly. It’s beautiful! This city has character!’”

These days you would be hard pressed to find a more enthusiastic ambassador for Naples and southern Italy than Meister. She loves the place with its rich, messy history and its magnificent antiquities. Now living in Norfolk, Virginia, she visits Naples often and continues to research its history and the legacy of its architecture, frescoes, goldwork, and other arts. Naples became Meister’s first muse and the historic city remains the aesthetic touchstone for her extraordinary beadworked jewelry. When she arrived in Naples, Meister was a skilled beader who made jewelry for herself and friends. But inspired by the Roman artwork and frescoes she found in southern Italy, Meister was soon creating earrings, bracelets and neckpieces that looked as though they had been made for a Roman empress. She started selling her classically inspired jewelry on the Navy base where her husband Ray was employed by the Navy Exchange, the base retailer. “I couldn’t believe people were buying it. They were very simple pieces. But soon I was getting commissions from officer’s wives.”

Today Meister sells her jewelry at craft fairs around the country and in several Italian boutiques. Her jewelry is dazzling, decorative and formal. Except for the fact that it is obviously in excellent repair and would make real artifacts appear dull and dingy in comparison, Meister’s jewelry would not look out of place in a museum vitrine. You do not need a degree in art history to recognize that pieces such as Solomon’s Knot bracelet, Clodia’s necklace and the Tuccia earrings are contemporary interpretations of the jewelry aesthetics of the classical world. Each piece has an evocative historical reference. Meister designed the Oplonti bracelet after visiting Villa Oplonti, which was the Naples home of Nero’s notorious wife Poppea. The lush vines-and-ivy motif on the white Oplonti bracelet was inspired by the extravagant images of vines and ivy worked into the frescoes around the villa’s swimming pool. Her opulent Clodia necklace, a double stranded gold-and-purple chain dripping with opals, is an homage to one of Ancient Rome’s most shocking bad girls, the patrician widow Clodia, who acquired and discarded lovers with impunity. Her Artemisia earrings, with their interlocking knots of regal gold, garnet and turquoise beads, were inspired by the glorious marble floors of the Santa Maria Maggiore church in Rome. Some of Meister’s favorite motifs are grape leaves and grape bunches, which she has used as the primary design element in such pieces as the Bacchus bracelet.

BACCHUS BRACELET of red glass cylinder beads with twenty-four karat gold gilt, twenty-four karat goldplated drops, Nymo beading thread; right angle weave, peyote stitch, and a variation of Nepal stitch, 2007.

“I think I’m a frustrated archaeologist,” is how Meister explains her love of ancient history and its artifacts. “My dad was a real history nut and he was always taking us to university history museums. I know I got some of it from him.” It was in Naples splendid Museo Archeologico Nazionale that she had her epiphany about mixing beadwork with her passion for antiquities. “I was looking at an exhibit from the excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the cities that were buried when Vesuvius erupted in the first century. There was a gold bracelet and a necklace from Oplonti. I realized I could interpret them with beads. I didn’t have a sketchbook. But I grabbed my checkbook and started sketching on the back.”

An exuberant, personable woman who once dreamed of a life on the stage, Meister still is amused by the unlikely path that led to her becoming a jewelry artist known for historically inspired jewelry made of beads barely bigger than pin heads. She was born in Pennsylvania to parents who were both natives of New Orleans. Her childhood was full of trips back to New Orleans to visit family, and she remembers being entranced by the cheap bead necklaces that everyone wears in thick layers of faux bling during Mardi Gras. Her engineer dad moved the family to New Jersey when Meister was a teenager and a few years later she earned a degree in communications at Loyola College in Baltimore. “I was interested in journalism, but was not so great at writing,” Meister explains. Instead she found work as a secretary in New York City and took acting classes at night. Her acting career got her as far as some roles in regional theater in New Jersey, but it changed her life. She met her husband in acting classes. Ray was not destined for a career in acting either, and by the 1990s the two were moving around the country as Ray’s job with the United States Navy Exchange took him from one base to another.

Meister was entranced as a child by her mother’s collection of costume jewelry. “My mom had a lot of it and she wore it beautifully,” says Meister. “She still does.” And Meister loved the Mardi Gras beads her aunts sent her. But Meister had no special connection with jewelrymaking until the early 1990s, when she complimented her son’s teacher on her earrings. “She told me she’d beaded them herself. It had never occurred to me that you could do that,” Meister says. “I was impressed. I went out and found a bead store and took some classes. I fell in love with the rhythm of beading and the stitching.” In 1994 Meister’s husband was transferred to Bremerton, a Navy port near Seattle, and Meister found another bead store. “The place was gorgeous. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven!” Meister was soon teaching classes at the shop.

SAPPHOS NECKLACE of glass cylinder beads with sterling silverplate, freshwater coin-shaped pearls, Nymo beading thread; brick stitch, circular peyote stitch, 2012.

Beading is an ancient artform that nearly all cultures have embraced in one way or another. Yet stitching seed beads to make ornate, complicated jewelry has more in common with tapestry-making than metalsmithing. Like needlework experts, experienced beaders use a repertoire of stitches for different aesthetic and structural reasons. Beaders use stitches with names such as the peyote stitch, ladder stitch, brick stitch, square stitch, herringbone stitch, and the right angle weave, plus variations on all of those stitches. The beads themselves are called “seed” beads because of their small size and to distinguish them from large, more individualistic, ornamental beads. Seed beads can be round, oblong and other shapes, and are typically made of glass, crystal and semiprecious stones, though many other materials can be used.

Meister’s favorite beads are Japanese crystal size 11 cylinder beads. She also frequently uses size 15 beads. “I love the Japanese glass beads primarily because of their uniformity and richness in colors and finishes. The gold matte metallic is my favorite because it has such a wonderful old-world look to it. In my opinion the matte metallic finishes on the beads are the best for translating the designs and motifs that inspire me. But I also find that inserting a small amount of high metallic finish beads or a silver-lined finish into the design gives the piece texture and a little sparkle that you find in marble.”

To underscore the idea that she is reinterpreting classical jewelry, Meister works pearls and semiprecious stones into her pieces. Sometimes the stones and pearls are relatively large, an inch or two in diameter, and she “bezels” them by making intricate beaded bezels. There is very little Meister can not do with some nylon beader’s thread, narrow needles and grain-sized beads. One recognition of her mastery is that Lark Crafts has just published a book on Meister’s work called Maggie Meister’s Classical Elegance: 20 Beaded Jewelry Designs. Meister wrote the book and it is part of Lark’s Beadweaving Master Class series. Meister included patterns that she likes, and that people admire, but which she no longer intends to make.

BOUDICCA NECKLACE of glass cylinder beads, lapis, amazonite, Nymo beading thread; circular peyote stitch, peyote stitch, right angle weave, and brick stitch, 2010.

Once she found her artistic footing in Naples, Meister settled into a routine of beading six to ten hours a day. “I had a studio that overlooked Vesuvius in one direction. In the other direction I could see the Tyrrhenian Sea. If I wasn’t beading in that studio I was out visiting museums and archaeological sites. I never wanted to leave.” But her husband’s job brought them back to Norfolk where Meister continued to make jewelry and teach workshops. In 2008 she entered the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show which was her first attempt to get in any of the big, prestigious, juried shows and she was accepted. “I found I enjoyed the show. I liked meeting customers and other craftspeople. And I realized that if I sold more jewelry I would not have the pressure of translating my work into workshops, which was getting a little tiring.”

Though Naples enchants her, Meister has in the last decade also traveled to Turkey, Ireland and Spain to study ancient archaeology, architecture and the iconography of those cultures. The imperial necklace Macha was inspired by the spirals used in Celtic designs, and it was named after a legendary Irish queen. Her luscious Zoe earrings, worked with pearls and garnets, were inspired by a mosaic in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Empress Zoe was an eleventh-century Byzantine ruler. Her Sappho necklace is an elegant gold and white creation designed around stylized lyre shapes. The Greek poet Sappho is often depicted holding her lyre, which is a symbol of her creativity.

Meister is exploring more modern periods as well. Some of her most recent work is based on the work of nineteenth-century artists who were themselves inspired by classical eras. She has always loved the Catalan artist Antonio Gaudi, born in the mid-nineteenth century in Barcelona, and after traveling to Barcelona to see his soaring architecture Meister designed her Gaudi bead. It is a two-inch long, heavily worked, pendant-sized bead made in an intoxicating palette of turquoise, deep purple, olive green, coral, and gold. Though Gaudi was a late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century artist, he was inspired by Gothic architecture and had a color sense that hearkened back to the brightly painted frescoes of ancient Rome. Meister has also made work based on the color patterns and design motifs of Persian and Turkish kilim rugs, Moroccan tiles and Greek antiquities. And she is intrigued by the nineteenth- and twentieth-century fashion for making jewelry based on what was then relatively newly unearthed archaeological discoveries. Archaeology as a science was in its infancy and when new discoveries were made in Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Egypt, it made headlines. Trend savvy jewelry designers such as the Italian Pio Castellani created jewelry directly inspired by the jewelry unearthed at such sites. Wealthy tourists taking leisurely, grand tours of Europe’s great cities bought the archaeologically inspired jewelry as souvenirs.

LAVINIA NECKLACE of glass cylinder beads with twenty-four karat goldplate, colored glass cylinder beads, Peruvian turquoise, apatite, chryoprase stones 2-3 millimeters in size. Nymo beading thread; circular peyote stitch, brick stitch and right angle weave, 2011.

When she is not attending craft fairs or traveling, Meister typically spends about ten hours a day beading at her home studio in Norfolk. She does almost all the work herself, only rarely hiring beaders to help. “I do about ninety-five percent of all my work myself,” Meister says. “The work is labor intensive but I work in small components and usually have three or four projects going at one time. I try to make a simple pair of earrings or a pendant every day or so. Then I also am always working on a medium-sized project that I make one component for every day or so, such as a bracelet. And finally I work also on a large project that takes more time in both design and the making of components.”

Her art and her passion for traveling and research are inextricably linked. “I would love to travel to Crete and the Middle East,” Meister says. “The other place on my bucket list is Bulgaria.” One of her newest series is based on the artifacts from ancient Thracia. An important collection of those artifacts is in the Varna Museum in Bulgaria. “I also love the Byzantine culture and the culture of ancient Egypt. I may even work my way up to the Renaissance. I just need more hours in the day.” 






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